Q: What do you get when you mix sunshine, a caesar and the supportive, exuberant Jessica Johns? A: A heavenly afternoon of humour and good chats!
We meet at the Five Point, a bar with good food, craft beer and a cool chandelier inside. The patio faces Main Street and is a great people-watching spot. I’ve had a Five Point caesar before and really love them. The rim is chunky seasoning salt and the garnish is a lime, hot pepper and two olives. I order mine in a tall glass because I love sodium too much and Jess orders hers in a short glass.
We cheers and end up bantering about personal “brands,” routines or habits that shape personality:
My brand is snacking, checking my Shark tracker app and Tender.
Tender is Tinder but for food. There are photos of food you can swipe on and it tells you which restaurant the food was served at.
That’s amazing someone thought of that. Love the pun.
I know! It’s all getting so niche. For example, I have a friend who made a Tinder app but for people who love to lift weights.
I would never join that! But Tinder based on specific hobbies is smart. I was on your personal site today that you started a few years ago before you moved to Vancouver. I love your idea on there where you wrote microfiction with the number of words matching the days until your big move to Vancouver and then shortening the pieces by one word each day as a countdown. I like the challenge to sit down and write every single day and also in a super condensed short form.
It was really good for me. I felt very out of my league when I moved to study creative writing in Vancouver. I came from an English Honours program at Grant MacEwan. There was only one creative writing course offered at Grant MacEwan and it only started in my last year. They hired Jacqueline Baker to teach the course and she was a huge influence on me to pursue writing further. So I felt nervous to go to UBC, with its really reputable creative writing program where a lot of accepted students have already found writing success or have been writing for a really long time. So as a build up to that, I wanted to train myself to write every day.
It’s like getting into shape!
One hundred percent. Shaping my literary mind.
Literary six pack.
Oh, she’s toned now. Kidding. She still needs work. The challenge of flash fiction removing a word each time means the narratives becomes constrained. Writing a short story in 3 words is really hard. I started at 148 characters and worked down every day. It was fun and really got me into the genre of flash fiction. I started reading more of that form and in general, learned more about hybrid forms of writing. That was the best thing that came out of the project.
I love hybrid forms. I sometimes challenge myself to tackle prose poetry. What do you like about flash fiction?
Similar to why I like poetry, I like flash fiction because the writer has to say so much with so little. I think it’s really hard to do and I admire people who can do it. Also for a reader, it’s delightfully time-efficient. It’s nice to read a poem or piece of microfiction on a ten minute break during the day. I love novels too and other long work but short forms are a different form of accomplishment to read.
The immediate reward of being in a world for a short, compact period of time.
It’s the ‘tweet’ of writing. There’s a different kind of feeling when you read it. Writing flash isn’t as fun as reading it but I really love it. I don’t know if it’s because of my short attention span? It takes me forever to read novels now. I used to devour long-form work in days and now it takes me a lot longer!
When did that shift for you?
Honestly, after my undergrad degree. I had to read a lot during that degree and it would really tire me out.
Totally. After a slog like that, your eyes and brain probably associate reading with analysis, studying. More clinical than enjoyable.
I’m actually working on a blog to help me fuel up, focus and read this summer. The concept is My Friends Recommend. I really love the idea of reading something that’s a personal review from someone you love. It not only gives you a great book to read, but it tells you a lot about the person who recommended it to you—why they love the book and want to pass it on.
A story that literally holds a story.
I put the challenge on myself to ask friends for books to read and then I also wanted to write about the experience of who gave me that title and how that book spoke to them. For example, I just finished Leanne Simpson’s collection This Accident of Being Lost and I can’t stop recommending it. It’s like I became a salesperson for that book! It’s so good and I want all my friends to read it. So I want to read books that my friends love as much in their own way.
I love that idea. What’s your creative writing thesis going to be?
A collection of short stories.
Awesome. Well, when it’s done and you find it a home, who would you want to blurb your book?
I would want Leanne Simpson, Alicia Elliott because their work really moves me, and for kicks, I’d ask JK Rowling. I would 100% tweet at her and see if she tweets back and provides me with the world’s best blurb. You never know.
You could ask her in Spell-form or in Parseltongue! Get her attention.
She might be offended by Parseltongue.
@jkrowling hssss hsss hsss.
Right. That’s Parseltongue for Hey! JK Rowling, will you blurb my book?
Okay. I will hold you to that. Two amazing First Nations writers and JK Rowling.
All women. All great.
One richer than the queen.
The others richer in our hearts than the queen.
The queen is not rich in my heart. I don’t care about the royal family. I have no time for the royal family.
I can’t even go to the grocery store and buy milk without seeing Charlotte’s first word, George’s first bicycle ride sans training wheels, and other “hot” gossip.
It annoys me too. Reality television is more important to me. I’d rather talk about Big Brother.
Well, the royal family represents a harmful colonist history and Big Brother represents what–?
Always being watched and judged through technology.
I just did 1984 with my students. Heavy choice for the summer. I wish I had just thrown on Big Bro instead!
There’s open tryouts to be a contestant soon.
Are you going to do that?
I’m thinking about it.
You’re not allowed to write. They make sure no contestants have pencil or paper or computers. Incase players write secret messages! What would you do all day? Plot revenges and get laid?
A lot of plotting. I would bring my knitting.
You wouldn’t be able to work on your thesis.
I’ll come back to it after! I’m not in a huge rush to graduate because of working for Prism, taking workshops, TA-ing and I’m also taking an Indigenous Feminist Theory class too through UBC’s First Nations and Indigenous Studies. It’s a 500 level course. I’m excited to get back to the study format of schooling. I was sick of it when I finished Grant MacEwan but I’m ready to use my mind in a different way again than just creative writing. That, and I love school.
Me too. I feel like you’re going to unpack a lot of thoughts and emotions and learn a lot about your own identity and about other First Nations women’s experiences.
Yes, and at the moment, in my current school environment, there’s nothing offered that allows me space to do that.
Do your short stories reflect or discuss your Cree identity?
Yes. I used to write about it even more—my family and my family history. And I am really interested in thinking about it and working through it, through the lens of my family. I spoke to my mom about identity and she said it’s something I’ll always return to. Culture and family are always topics I’ll want to return to. My dad’s a settler and my mom’s Cree. I’ll never feel like my identity is fully figured out or feel secure in it so I’ll always cycle back to it. The death of my Kokum, for instance, was a time where I was writing about my family and heritage a lot. Side note, my mom also jokingly tells me to stop writing about her!
Mine does that too! They have to get used to it.
She’s such an interesting woman! I have to. There will be times in my writing where I am preoccupied with other issues but I feel identity will never stop unfolding. Reading Indigenous writers in my program like Selina Boan or Carleigh Baker, has really inspired me. I don’t feel as alone anymore trying to figure shit out! I think that’s a reason why Leanne’s Simpson’s and Alicia Elliott’s work speaks to me. I feel relieved that I have those voices to help me. I’m able to relate to stories in ways I’ve never been able to relate to a lot of other writing and identities and characters. Hearing Samantha Nock read at Tonic last week was also brilliant and inspiring for me.
She’s amazing. I’m so glad her work came into my life this summer! It’s really important, atmospheric poetry. I love when a reader can brew that kind of energy in an oral performance.
I’m just obsessed and excited by the Indigenous voices I’ve been exposed to in this community. I’ve had a taste of what it feels like to not feel fully understood and now I have these talented individuals to drive me, to learn from. Moving to Vancouver has been a big catapult for me in that way. In Vancouver, you have to force yourself NOT to go to readings because there are so many!
You have to remember self-care, Netflix, bathing!
I think maybe before, I didn’t realize how important community is because there’s an idea that writing is a lonely craft and it needs to be solitary. And now, I feel that’s really not true. You need community to strive and grow in your writing.
To inspire and challenge you.
There are established writers that may meet through their presses or writers that have met in academic programs and then there might be emerging writers new to a city who don’t know where to start in seeking community and then there’s the problem of a vast space between. In Vancouver, that space is being filled and we can all unite and learn from each other, become friends. That’s what’s pulling community together and providing people with resources and friendships. You need those things to prosper as a writer.
That takes a lot of individual initiation. There is funding and public support but we need people to start things and create positive energy and take action to host, help and coordinate. And be welcoming.
I agree. Once you know a writer and get invited to whatever reading series they go to or read at, you feel included.
When did you decide to be a writer?
I made my first book myself when I was really young about a dinosaur, a diplodocus to be specific. On the cover, it says written and illustrated by Jessica Johns. It was my pride and joy.
Walk me through the structural plot of this story.
I wish I could. Young Jess was a bit of a weirdo!
Plot-free narrative. Experimental.
One character becomes two or three characters. They just want to live in the animal world.
So it’s about existence.
And not wanting to be extinct.
Your character knows they’re going to be extinct? That’s so sad!
Oh they know. It was a weird story.
That’s amazing. And that’s when you realized you enjoyed writing.
I always kept journals. Later, when I was 14, some of those entries get so angsty and awful featuring song lyrics from Alexisonfire and Brand New. But I’m still angsty.
You don’t need to grow out of angst.
She said angstily.
Later on, all through my undergrad, I loved writing but didn’t know it was going to be a future pursuit. I was embarrassed and nervous of people’s reactions to my dream. I lied all throughout my undergrad saying I want to be a professor in English instead of a writer because I thought people would accept that more. I come from a place where if something’s not very practical, it may not be worth while. I was even afraid to tell my family!
But you’re so close with your family.
I was worried they would think it was silly.
Maybe part of you still thought it was silly or too scary or something!
Yes, I might have! Lack of exposure, lack of knowing other writers. In my last year when I took that elective class at Grant MacEwan, my prof really encouraged me and it was game-changer. I didn’t have teachers I really connected with in high school like that and she told me to write more, expand, edit and work harder. When I applied for grad school, I applied for an MA in English and then I also applied for the MFA in creative writing, using the writing sample from this class. When I got accepted into UBC, I finally told people that’s what I wanted to do.
My dad is so lovely and supportive but for some reason, I was almost most nervous to tell him. He’s always been a very hard working man from farms to oil fields to family. He never took sick days. He’d work more than one job. But he was my BIGGEST supporter when I told him about my love of writing. He signed up for my blog, said it was the best part of his day to wake up to with his morning coffee. I was living in Edmonton as this time but the rest of my family was in Edson and I’d go home to visit. I would describe my dad being a man of few words, but he really wanted to discuss my writing with me. I had a story about a taxidermist and he told me he met someone who was a taxidermist and told them about my story! He would say that I really changed the way he thought about things. He not only supported me but he was engaged. I didn’t expect it and it continues to be so awesome.
That makes me so happy.
All of my family were supportive like that. I recently contributed to Sad Mag’s Cheese Issue and I got two copies and my family came to visit and I told them they could read it which they were super keen on. I left to go to work, came home and both my issues were missing! They were in my mom’s suitcase! She was going to rob me of both my copies!
What was your piece in the cheese issue about?
I wrote a nonfiction piece about cheese-pairings. I don’t discriminate against cheeses. It was marvellous to write.
I’m glad your family wants to rob your work!
Me too. And most of my family are based in the prairies, where my band is located as well—Sucker Creek First Nation. They’re so close to that community and being able to participate with that with my writing is so exciting. We want to do workshops and mentoring initiatives there with young writers. When I think about reaching out with youth mentorship and writing, I think of my home, where my extended family is.
That’s something you can provide in the future.
Exactly. I’m very excited to do that. And my family who live there and are so involved inspire me. My aunt is the first female Indigenous Taekwondo Master in Canada. I have two aunts there who are teachers. Another is a librarian. They’re in big facets of the community so I know I’ll have their support to take on a role there and reach out and participate once I’m done school. I know what it’s like to grow up in a place where creative opportunities weren’t really available to me and had I not taken that class in my final year of school and had a great mentor, I may not be doing this right now. Letting young people know that they can write and become writers and it’s a possibility, giving them resources, is a good start.
And I’m sure you aunts will have your future books stocked up in their libraries and school libraries! So because you like hybrid genres, in your thesis, will you play with that?
Having read, Chloe Caldwell’s Women, I really think so. There are some sections that are really short, like a paragraph, and some that stretch longer.
Sounds like Amy Hempel. I like that too.
That’s the structure I really like and want to work with.
You also make great sangria! Pour some of that in there!
There will be instructions to make sangria in my thesis for sure.
Marketably confusing but I bet it will go over great! Do you have a title in mind or is it too early?
“Out of Underwear and out of Time.” Kidding! That was a tweet I posted last week. I’m always out of underwear and never have time. I need to figure it out.
Don’t do laundry. That’s a waste of time. And we’re not out of underwear here, but we are out of time!
Jess, you are the absolute best. Your energy, attentiveness and thoughtfulness bring a lot of fun to the table and lots of comfort. Thank you for taking the time out to chat. I can’t wait to read your stories and wish you well on your thesis and everything you get up to with your writing and community endeavours!
Jessica Johns is a writer of Cree ancestry and a member of Sucker Creek First Nation. She is the Promotions Editor for PRISM international, and is currently living and writing on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Sḵwxwú7mesh, and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations. Her writing has appeared in SAD Mag and she was the winner of Saltern’s 2017 Short Forms contest. She enjoys eating tacos and you can usually find her playing video games and/or cross-stitching swear words onto nice fabric.